January 14, 2010

Here be (some) spoilers….

At the 2009 Cannes Film Festival the Ecumenical Jury awarded its first ever “anti-award” for what it declared was “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”. The Prize of the Ecumenical Jury was established by Christian filmmakers in 1974 to “honour works of quality which touch the spiritual dimension of our existence” and it appeared that Antichrist, the latest film from the Danish director Lars Von Trier, wasn’t quite what they had in mind.

Written and filmed amidst a bout of near-crippling depression that the oft provocative Von Trier experienced, Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe and French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg as an unnamed grieving couple who retreat to a cabin in a forest as a means of therapy to deal with the accidental death of their infant son. Alas, the forest isn’t as nice as it sounds. Some ominous acorns and a talking fox turn up to unsettle some shit, the desperate sex between the couple goes from unsettling to downright fucked, and then things get all freaky and nasty…….

Chaos reigns!

Most of the controversy surrounding the film comes from its scenes of explicit sex and outlandish sexual violence. The former employed the use of pornographic actors as “stunt doubles” for real penetration and ejaculation shots, whilst the latter saw the novel use of prosthetic genitals for some disturbing close-ups. Von Trier, to his credit, is one of the few filmmakers who use images of real sex in a restrained and effective manner (as discussed here). What drew the ire of the Cannes Ecumenical Jury was the perceived misogynistic content of the story related to the “She” character. To go into detail here would be a spoiler too far but the director has nevertheless denied the charge, claiming that the female characters in his films represent him and that he identifies with “She” of Antichrist in particular. This is not to claim that Lars Von Trier has any kind of aversion to controversy. He is fully aware that there is no such thing as bad publicity, especially for a Danish writer/director of small European films, and has made a career of being quite a willing and gleeful enfant terrible of cinema. Amidst the clamor that greeted Antichrist at the Cannes Festival, a press conference was held in which a British tabloid journalist stood up and, in a display of self-indulgent and pretentious moral outrage, demanded of the director that he justify the film. Although initially baffled, a smirking Von Trier calmly explained that he didn’t have to justify or explain anything, the press attendees were essentially his guests at the event and, anyway, he was the best film director in the world.

Charlotte Gainsbourg enjoyed something of an unambiguously warmer reception at the Cannes Festival. She was awarded the prize of Best Actress for her performance in Antichrist, a gutsy and engaging turn that looks every bit as emotionally draining as the actress has since claimed. Gainsbourg has spoken of what she felt was the vulnerability of Lars Von Trier as he was making the film. Still battling the depression that had prompted him to make Antichrist in the first place, Von Trier was apparently unable to operate the camera, his preferred approach to filming, which prompted the actress to feel she had to give everything she could to the performance.

Acorn rains!

As deserving in their praise as the performers and filmmaker are, a great deal of credit is also due to the British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for some astoundingly beautiful imagery. Mantle had worked with Lars Von Trier several times before and also became the recent recipient of an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the hit film Slumdog Millionaire. His shots of dream sequences in the forest setting of Antichrist are extraordinarily striking and well-crafted, displaying a sensual blend of hypnotic beauty and foreboding. The aesthetic strength of these visuals have not gone unnoticed, as even critics generally hostile to the film have nonetheless conceded that it looks great.

Antichrist is one of the most original horror movies made in years, its success resulting largely from the fact that it eschews much of the well-worn formula of such films. Von Trier has said that he started out with the intention of making a horror film but knew by experience that the end result would be something “between genres”.  That said, the film recalls the religious themes and symbolism of classic horror films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. There is the title itself, the setting of the forest named “Eden” (despite being a threatening place of fear, pain and desolation) and the imagery of quasi-crucifixion toward the end. The misogyny charges laid at the film courtesy of the Cannes Ecumenical Jury seem erroneous and overly-simplistic, a knee-jerk reaction by critics wary of the known provocateur in Lars Von Trier. Indeed, the character of “He” is depicted in a far more disdainful manner throughout. It is clear that his hubris, intellectual vanity and paranoia are the true targets of the film whereas “She” is depicted as gradually succumbing to vast psychosis that has seeped out of the unforgiving nature surrounding them. This is a wonderfully atmospheric film that is likely to get under your skin and stay with you for days. The reactionary press, all too quick to emphasize the explicit shocks, will have done the film a huge disservice if the hysterical condemnation attracts people to this film who seek only cheap titillation. Antichrist is far too awash in grief and despair to be enjoyed as some kind of arty grindhouse flick but it is also far more thought provoking, and has a lot more to offer, than the tedious brigade of offended tabloid critics have suggested.



  1. Spot on assessment Sir Gibfield! I agree that the themes explored in this film are so couched in allegory and symbolism that it seems too simplistic to peg it as misogynistic. The “intellectual vanity and paranoia” of the He character that you point out, seems a much more salient theme, to me anyway. But I’m a dude so, there you are I guess.

  2. I guess the Ecumenical Jury doesn’t mind being one of the least essential juries on the planet. Second only to the jury of My Five Fingers, which consists of my five fingers clenched into a fist and reigning over absolutely no one because I’m a big pansy who’s never punched anybody.

    I’ll admit the controversy was the first thing to grab my interest. I’m aware of Von Trier’s work but haven’t seen anything he’s done. I was completely unprepared for how gorgeous the trailer was, so controversy/promise of depravity aside, I am very excited to see this movie. And I’m very upset that I missed the opportunity to see it in the theater.

    I love how Von Trier handled the Cannes reception. To answer someone’s grandstanding with a bit of mocking grandstanding is pretty great.

    Anyway, great write-up. I already knew about the “chaos reigns” thing since it seems to be about as ubiquitous as “I Drink Your Milkshake” was last year, so seeing this made me laugh out loud:

    Antichrist alternate poster

  3. I can’t really hold anything against the Ecumenical Jury after having a look at some of the films they have honored –


    I just think they got this one wrong.

    Truth be told, the only reason I wrote the above was to try and craft some kind of appropriate vehicle for the “Chaos reigns, Acorn rains” gag in the picture captions. I started with that and had to work from there.

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